In the days leading up to the United States Barista Championship and the U.S. Brewer’s Cup, we at Barista Magazine are proud to share with you exclusive interviews with the six regional champions in each competition. We will feature the Southwestern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the Northwestern Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Southeast Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Northeastern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the South Central Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; and the North Central Regional Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions on Tuesday. And stay tuned right here on Barista Magazine’s blog all next week for more of our preview coverage of all the exciting events and parties happening in Seattle in conjunction with the SCAA, and reports and photos of all the action every day through the end of this epic week in coffee.
Tell us about how you got started in coffee.
My start in coffee was March 17, 2004. I was in college when my aunt, Dalene, decided to purchase Ashley Grace Coffee, an existing shop in Oklahoma. She offered me a job, and the customers and staff at Ashley Grace are a significant reason why I work in coffee today.
Can you tell us about an “a-ha!” moment you’ve had in your coffee career?
I’ve found that usually the experiences with coffee that stick with me the longest come when I am not expecting it. I recall a coffee that I was served at an Intelligentsia when I was living in Chicago. It was a Sumatra, and it completely surprised me by how good it tasted. Before that cup, I would have said, “I like coffee,” but after that cup, I would say “I am wowed by coffee.” Also, I just returned from a visit to Costa Rica and the El Roble farm. I used a coffee from El Roble at regionals, and I am planning to use it again in April [at the USBC]. The trip was really impactful for me. I would recommend to any coffee professional to do whatever it takes to get to origin.
Please rundown your competition history for us.
My first competition was the Midwest Regional Barista Competition in 2010. It was so bad that I didn’t dare compete in 2011. In 2012, I tried my skills in the SCRBC Brewers Cup. I made finals in Brewers Cup that year (and when I say that I made finals, I really mean there were only 5 people in the competition at that point). In 2013, I took home 4th place at SCRBC in Kansas City, and most recently, I won the 2014 SCRBC. This is my first year to compete in the national competition.
Kansas City has a really vibrant specialty coffee community. Why do you think that is?
I have been in Kansas City for over five years now, and I am proud of how the community has developed since then. About the Coffee’s Marty and Tooti Roe are probably the two people most responsible for that development. We are extremely lucky to have them in Kansas City. The coffee community in KC is so much bigger now as well, by the sheer numbers of people and companies involved.
Tell us how you prepared for the South Central Regional Barista Competition this year, and how will you train for the USBC?
Training for regionals involved quite a few late evenings in a room by myself. I tried to practice my routine as often as possible for other people, but that doesn’t always work out. I received quite a bit of help from Tim O’Brien, who imported my coffee. As far as nationals, I mentioned earlier that I just returned from a visit to El Roble. That has given me a great head start. Holly Bastin is helping me a bit, and it never hurts to have a guy like Pete Licata nearby. He sort of knows what he’s doing. Marty and Tooti are also working to create a space for me to practice at About the Coffee.
What can you tell us about your coffee?
I used a coffee from the El Roble farm in Costa Rica. Originally, I chose it off of a cupping table. I was attracted to it because I thought that it would work well as a competition coffee. I wanted a coffee that had complexity, and El Roble did. Now, I have a unique relationship with that coffee. This will be the second crop of this coffee that I will use in a competition. While visiting the farm, I spent an entire day at El Roble, picking and helping as much as I could with the day-to-day operations on the farm. I consider myself lucky to have had an experience like that.
How do you think barista competitions contribute to professional development?
Within the industry, there is talk about being a “coffee professional.” I think that most people who talk about that idea don’t just mean that we can earn a paycheck in coffee for the rest of our working lives, but that we can be an expert in our field. Competitions require that you become that expert, whether it’s in regards to your coffee or in regards to customer service.
What do you do when you’re not doing coffee?
I spend most of my spare time with my wife, Jaime. She is pretty talented and interesting. I am an avid sports fan. I grew up on Kansas City Royals baseball and Wichita State basketball (and as I type this, they are 31-0 on the season!). Sporting Kansas City is also a team that has earned my loyalty since moving to Kansas City. My undergrad studies were in Biblical/theological studies, and I do a lot of reading on those topics. I have been a bike commuter for nine years now, and some of my happiest days are spent riding around Kansas City. Karl Pilkington also fascinates me (if you don’t know who he is, look him up).
How about that prize you got for winning the regional—a trip to Ecuador with Cafe Imports—pretty awesome, huh?
Ecuador is going to be pretty insane. Café Imports seems to do a really good job planning these trips for the regional winners, so I know that the trip will be incredible. I am thankful for the generosity of Café Imports to provide this trip, and their commitment to these competitions. I am also excited to spend a week making new friends and getting to know those who I have met a little better.